The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion China is creating concentration camps in Xinjiang. Here’s how we hold it accountable.

Uighur security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang region.
Uighur security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang region. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

CHINA CONTINUES to see the uproar over its creation of concentration camps holding as many as 1 million ethnic Uighurs and others as a public-relations problem. In recent days, the government issued another white paper claiming it is protecting religious freedom and culture in the autonomous northwestern province of Xinjiang, despite evidence that it has corralled much of the Muslim population into spartan camps for forced brainwashing. When Western nations repeatedly brought up the camps on Nov. 6 at China’s five-year United Nations human rights review in Geneva, a top Chinese official dismissed the claims as “seriously far from the truth.”

That is why recently introduced bipartisan legislation in Congress is vitally important. China’s leaders have dissembled for a year and cannot be allowed to escape accountability for the massive indoctrination and internment drive. Exposure of the camps — by witnesses, scholars, nongovernmental organizations and Western governments — has been extremely important. But China’s leaders are not shamed. They are old hands at repression, having built the system known as laojiao, or reeducation through labor, that existed outside the regular prison system and was widely used for punishing dissidents and petty criminals until it was closed down in 2013. Now it has been resurrected for use against the ethnic Uighurs, big time.

The Uighur Human Rights Policy Act of 2018 — introduced with bipartisan sponsors, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.); Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee; and Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) in the House — calls for creating a U.S. special coordinator for Xinjiang to respond to the crisis, as well as paving the way for applying Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on specific Chinese officials responsible for the human rights violations. That includes Chen Quanguo, the party secretary overseeing the imprisonment.

The U.S. State Department on Sept. 12, expressed deep concern over China’s “worsening crackdown” on minority Muslims in the Xinjiang region. (Video: Reuters)

The legislation, if enacted, would mandate a report to Congress identifying Chinese firms contributing to the camps and ubiquitous surveillance systems in Xinjiang, perhaps leading to the sanctioning of these companies, and would empower the FBI to track down Chinese officials responsible for harassing Uighurs in the United States. When Uighurs outside China have protested what is happening, their relatives in Xinjiang have been hauled off to camps and other locations, as happened to relatives of six U.S.-based journalists for Radio Free Asia.

Congress needs to act to fill a vacuum left by the Trump administration, which has said and done little about the Xinjiang repression. In Beijing, in an initiative led by Canada, 15 Western ambassadors have sought a meeting with Mr. Chen to express concern, but the United States did not join. It should. Most of the world’s majority-Muslim nations have been unconscionably mute about the repression; the United States should stand with other liberal democracies.

China has justified its actions as counterterrorism and “preventing extremism,” but it hardly makes sense to imprison 11.5 percent of the Muslim population of Xinjiang between the ages of 20 and 79, as has been estimated by some experts. Forcing tens of thousands of people into jails and then trying to wipe away their language and culture are crimes against an entire people. No amount of spin can conceal it.

Read more:

David Von Drehle: China’s glittering glamour disguises a fist of tyranny

The Post’s View: China finally admits it is building a new archipelago of concentration camps. Will the world respond?

The Post’s View: China must dismantle its grotesque network of brainwashing factories

Josh Rogin: Ethnic cleansing makes a comeback — in China

The Post’s View: We can’t ignore this brutal cleansing in China